María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s “Like the lonely traveler”: A Conversation with the Neon Queen Collective

The Neon Queen Collective is a trio of Austin-based curators—Jessi DiTillio, Kaila Shedeen, and Phillip Townsend—who collaborate on topics such as race, ethnicity, representation, class, sexuality, and gender in socially engaged art produced by feminist artists of color. This fall, they are showing the second part of a two-part exhibition series on María Magdalena Campos-Pons at the Visual Arts Center here at the University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition Like the lonely traveler traces the evolution of María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s video production over the last three decades, from her early documentary and autobiographical photographic series to her more recent conceptual explorations.

On Friday, October 12th, The Neon Queen Collective will host a panel discussion on the work of artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, who will join scholars from UT Austin and central Texas to discuss her practice in relation to the field of video art across the Americas. The panel will be moderated by Dr. George Flaherty, Associate Professor of Art History and Director of the Center for Latin American Visual Studies (CLAVIS) at UT Austin. The panel takes place at 4:30 p.m. in Room 1.102 in the Art Building.

Read on for a discussion between UT AMS doctoral student Gaila Sims and the Neon Queen Collective:

María Magdalena Campos-Pons Exhibition

A still from Like the lonely traveler. Image courtesy of the Visual Arts Center website. 

Gaila Sims: My first question is about the formation of the Neon Queen Collective. I’d love to know when you were formed and why you felt working in a collective was important.

Kaila Sheedeen: We started actually through a conversation Phillip and I had in March 2017, and there was a call out through the Visual Arts Center for Center Space Gallery, which is a student-run gallery space so you can submit proposals and do shows in that space, you can either curate or show your own work. And I saw that call come out and at the time I was really interested in figuring out how to put some of what I was learning in my classes to actual use. I have always been interested in curatorial work and I knew Phillip was interested and we share the same advisor, Cherise Smith. So it seemed to make sense, since our interests aligned, and at that time I realized I didn’t want to be the name of a show. I was trying to avoid that, so I thought the idea of working collaboratively with someone would make the process not only more interesting, it would make it more rich for everyone involved. And so Phillip and I had a conversation and we decided that since he had a personal relationship with Magda [María Magdalena Campos-Pons] from previous work he had done that it made sense to use that as a starting point, as a first time collaboration. It was a really easy stepping stone for us, and I’ve always really admired her work. He obviously loves her work, and it seemed like a really good way to start as a collective. We ended up moving the show to the Christian-Green Gallery, and it moved from there to a two-part show.

Phillip Townsend: And one thing that really evolved out of this process that we didn’t really anticipate was this community of art institutions that sort of formed and our being able to get work from various institutions. So the work in February was housed at the Christian-Green Gallery, we have work from the Blanton, we have work from the Peabody Institute in Salem, we have a work from the Cooper Gallery at Harvard. We’ve been able to create a smaller community of art institutions, and now we are involved at the VAC and the Contemporary. It’s become a very intimate relationship between all of them. And that’s a product of our work as a collective, we bring different things to the table but collectively we try to produce something that’s a whole.

Kaila Schedeen: And I think that’s something that was really conscious on our part, because we are working as a collective. We all see art as having the ability to provide connections between people, and I think that to me is one of the most powerful things about visual creation is that it connects people across spaces. And so to be able to not only connect ourselves but these different institutions around the country was a really powerful thing that I’m glad that we were able to do it to the extent that we did.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons

A still from Like the lonely traveler. Image courtesy of the Visual Arts Center website. 

Gaila Sims: You’ve already started talking about this, but I’m interested in the goals of the Neon Queen Collective.

Phillip Townsend: Well, one of the major goals for us is visibility. When Kaila and Jessi and I started talking about how we wanted to define ourselves, what contribution we wanted to make in Austin and in the art world in general, we thought about the invisibility of minority artists, particularly minority women artists or feminist-identified artists. We thought and feel strongly that that is our wheelhouse, that is where we are going to focus and that’s the contribution that we are going to make. So that’s the main goal, to provide a platform because we acknowledge and recognize that we are not making the art ourselves, that we are just providing a platform so that we can showcase artists’ work and bring these different perspectives to various communities.

Gaila Sims: I’d love to hear more about the exhibition that is on display now.

Jessi DiTillio: The exhibition is at the Visual Arts Center, in the Art Building. It is a retrospective of her video art—not everything but we have selections of her videos from the early 90s until 2016. It’s a cool space—we’ve built walls in the gallery to make viewing rooms for all the different videos. The show is called Like the lonely traveler, which is a line from a Cuban poet. Magda is really into poetry as an influential aspect of her practice in general. When we were interviewing her and asked her about artists who influenced her it was almost all writers rather than visual artists. She reads a lot of poetry and often draws on particular lines to influence images in her work. So for example there’s one video piece in the show that draws on this image from a poem about the moon and she drew from this image she got while reading the poem of a hill that had the moon sunk into it—the way you would see it at twilight. She built this whole visual experience from this image of a moon sinking into a hill. The show opened on September 21st and will be on display until December 7th.

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